Rights Talk: The Opinion Dynamics of Rights Framing

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A classic statement about rights talks in American politics argues they are a divisive force, limiting discussion and creating zero-sum questions. While we agree that rights talk has become ubiquitous, we disagree about its effects on the mass public. Rights frames are a way to provide publicly accessible reasons that should lead to perceptions of the source as less extreme, which enables discourse rather than cuts it off. We hypothesize that framing conservative issue positions in the language of “rights” (as opposed to morality) will lead to perceptions of the candidate as less conservative and less religious, enabling liberals to increase their support for the source.


Using a simple experimental design, we compare the effects of varying issue frames on beliefs about and attitudes toward a source across a wide variety of issues: abortion, the death penalty, gay rights, healthcare, and education.


Our results support our hypothesis, though with some variation across issues that accords with the credibility of framing a conservative position in terms of rights.


Contrary to prominent democratic theories, rights-based frames promote discourse and perceptions of political moderation, particularly among younger Americans.


Abortion; Capital punishment; Civil rights; Conservatism; Education; Gay rights; Human rights; Medical care


American Politics | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies | Political Science | Race and Ethnicity | Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies | Women's Studies

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